The De-Militarized Zone: Politics and Religion in the Middle East
By Samantha Sisskind
AMMAN, JORDAN – The swastika and anti-Israel graffiti spray-painted on the wall of a church parking lot I pass on the way to my school in central Amman reminds me daily of the blurred line between religious and political beliefs, particularly here in the Middle East. In fact, while referring to it as a “line” is familiar terminology, it’s woefully insufficient to suitably explain the relationship between these two facets of human identity. The inevitable overlap between politics and religion more aptly resembles a mine-laden de-militarized zone: a volatile and uncertain area separating two realms that have more in common than either is willing to admit.
In a presentation given to foreign students at Jordan University, Father Nabil Haddad, a Greek Melkite Catholic Priest and Executive Director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, advocated that Jordan is the paradigm of religious cooperation and tolerance in the Middle East. He argued that Jordanian Muslims live in harmony with the Christian minority. In addition, he claimed Jordanians, the majority of whom identify with some faith, respect other religious people and are tolerant of the faiths of their fellow countrymen. Thus, Jordan lacks religiously motivated internal violence that plagues its geographical neighbors, such as Lebanon or Egypt. Though his sweeping generalizations ignored salient points, I decided to pick a big juicy bone with his argument. I asked in Arabic, “If Jews made up a large portion of the population here today, would there be such inter-religious cooperation in Jordan?”
His answer was revealing, yet ultimately unsatisfying. He told me that any Muslim or Christian in Jordan who respects his or her faith must respect Jews. He said that Muslims, in particular, get caught in the trap wherein they mistake political issues for religious ones, and direct their frustration with political problems toward the Jewish people. However, religion has nothing to do with conflicts between political entities. Jewish, Christian and Muslim people need to resolve their issues with each other, learn to cooperate as fellow People of the Book, and separate their political views from their religious beliefs before any political resolution can be achieved.
Easier said than done.
Despite the prevalence of extreme political Islamic parties, such as Hamas, Palestinian secularist movements for statehood still retain significant support today. However, in my opinion, the infusion of Islam into the dialogue surrounding Palestinian nationalist goals has carried over to the interpersonal level wherein many Palestinians attach their Muslim faith to their national Palestinian identities. Thus, the issue of Palestinian statehood becomes an affirmation of their Muslim identity instead of a political debate aimed at achieving peace, and further adds to the relevance of faith in politics.
As for Israel, it’s identity as “the Jewish state” ties outside perceptions of its politics to perceptions of its religion. The Knesset is not unified regarding the issue of Palestinian statehood, and it is impossible to say that there is a collective Jewish will–political or religious. Yet, by disempowering Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, the actions of the Israeli army and government are perceived as enacting the will of the Jewish people. From an outside perspective, the Jewish faith is responsible for the Gaza siege, Israeli occupation, etc. thereby politicizing the role of religion.
Both Judaism and Islam have religious claims to land in the region, notably Jerusalem, and these matters of faith play a role in the present political conflict over borders and land rights. Though politicians are writing the proposals and representing each side, we have to ask ourselves where their motivations are rooted. The source of conflict not only resides in the antagonistic political history between Palestinians and Israelis, but within the Scriptures and religious histories of Islam and Judaism, which hallowed the land in Jerusalem making both parties want to administer it.
Unfortunately, the faith of the “other” has become symbolic of the adversary in this conflict from both perspectives in each society. Animosity and blame aren’t only directed toward Israel or Hamas, but toward ethnic and religious identity, such as the Arab Muslim or the Jew. Political agreements have failed to achieve coexistence between believers of both faiths. Conflict resolution through interfaith dialogue or cooperation is part and parcel of political compromise and reconciliation.
As for the priest, while I appreciate his candor, idealism, and incredible achievements to increase interfaith cooperation in Jordan, his views were unrealistic, and fell short of identifying a cure to reduce the ill will between Arab Muslims and Jews. Unfortunately, like the swastika at the church in Amman, the discord among religions in the Middle East will not be erased until we recognize that faith is intimately connected to the politics.